The thing that struck me the most about this middle batch of episodes in Homeland’s season 3 where two titles that were references to modernist poetry. I admit that this might not resonate with just anyone, and I fancy myself more of a media scholar these days, but with my roots in English Literature, this two episode sequence stood out to me immediately. So, this week I would like to look a bit at these two episodes (Season 3, episodes 7 & 8) and talk a bit about how they might relate to the poems they reference and the movements out of which these poems come.
Season 3, episode 7 is titled “Gerontion,” which shares its name with a poem by famed modernist poet, T.S. Eliot. Eliot’s poem, to summarize, is something of a stream of consciousness by an aged man regarding his relation to the world around him and his interpretation of history. The narrator of the poem seems to understand the futility in attempting to understand history or even our own concept of reality. Consider this piece, “Think now/ History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors/ And issues, deceives us with whispering ambitions,/ Guides us by vanities.” This passage certainly suggests the nebulousness of attempting to find anything absolute in our understanding of history and, perhaps, suggests a powerlessness of any person in the overall scheme of things. Afterall, the following line states “Think now/She gives when our attention is distracted/ And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions/ That the giving famishes the craving.”
If we think of this poem in relation to the episode of Homeland, with which it shares a title, I think that perhaps this poem rings true in looking at the relationship dynamic between Saul and Majid. Both of these men have been at the intelligence/political game for quite some time and each of them seems to understand that there is a fruitlessness to the “back and forth” that occurs between warring entities. The following exchange between these men seems to suggest as much:
SAUL: Well, we’re both old men, there is no disputing that.
MAJID: We are.
SAUL: It’s the curse of old men to realize that, in the end, we control nothing. So we lash out. Buenos Aires, Berlin, Bergen. These are small acts, Majid. Unworthy of you.
MAJID: You left something out. The bombing of the CIA. Nothing small about that. Nothing unworthy.
SAUL: Well, I wanted to talk about that, too.
MAJID: I’m sure you do.
SAUL: Because when that bomb went off, killing all those people, many of them my friends, my first thought was not revenge. It was, “something has to change.” You hit us, we hit you. It’s always the same.
MAJID: And how does my going back as your spy change any of that?
SAUL: For years, we toiled in back rooms, you and I. We toiled while shallower men held the stage, waiting for our time to come, gradually understanding it never would. Now it has, unexpectedly.
These old men have also seemed to lose themselves in their own interpretations of history, but unlike our narrator in the poem, these old men have been offered a chance to redeem their power instead of allowing the wind to, as happens in the poem, be “driven by the Trades/ To a sleepy corner.”
The next episode, “A Red Wheel Barrow” is a reference to William Carols Williams’ poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Carrie even references the poem directly within the episode in a coded batch of texts. A restricted number writes to her, “So much depends upon…” to which she replies, “A red wheel barrow.” Although at this point, I think that, within the story space, this is just a coding tactic, I think that this poem can be understood within a larger context as it relates to what is going on in the show. The poem is frustratingly short and devoid of any punctuation, but this strangely suits this show. Every plot that is devised in this show is dependent on some (seemingly) small thing, without which, a plan can be doomed. For example, the CIA depended on Fara’s information on Majid to secure his compliance in Saul’s plan for Iran. The lack of punctuation in the poem can be understood in relation to the seeming lack of operational protocol for the characters within the show. Much of what these characters do is dependent on their own creativity and thinking “on their feet.” Williams’ poem has some general consistency in form (in relation to its own structure), but the rules that typically guide language (i.e. punctuation) are not present to inform the reader. The reader of the poem is implicated in the process of deriving meaning in an unclear environment, much like is expected of the intelligence officers in the show.
Even beyond these poems themselves, perhaps the modernist tradition from which these poems emerge can be understood to have meaning in relation to Homeland. Modernism is often associated with/derived from artists dealing with or working through the horrors of WWI, but more importantly in this context, it is often associated with looking at a new way toward progress via intellectual and innovative means. This idea is certainly present in the plan that Saul has derived in the hope that he can use Majid to help improve relations between the East and West, and more generally, in the collection and use of intelligence as a means to move the world forward.
All in all, I applaud the writers of Homeland for a smart and interesting use of literary references.
8 thoughts on “Homeland and Modernist Poetry (Homeland Rewatch S3.05-S3.08)”
This was an interesting analysis! It was cool that you picked up on the literary references in these episodes. I studied “The Red Wheelbarrow” as an English undergraduate student and was intrigued by it’s simplicity, but I was not familiar with “Gerontion.” I think that “The Red Wheelbarrow” is in stark contrast, though, to the complexity of the plots in Homeland. The imagery in the poem suggests a calmer, more peaceful life than anyone on Homeland has.
Thanks for pointing out the source for these titles, and shedding a little light on how the show tries to connect these poems with their ongoing plots. I am always intrigued by less well-known literary references showing up in more popular-type entertainment. The early seasons of Seinfeld did this quite a bit – George and Jerry were always making reference to obscure things, and it still was funny to an audience who had no idea what the references were (this was before the characters became parodies of themselves in the last three seasons). Though the titles are not very pronounced in television shows (they don’t even show up when watching the show), it is clear that they mean something to the show creators. Do you think this is a way for a show to carry a bit more “ethos” credibility with an academic crowd? I mean, we are studying the show in a graduate-level class…
I briefly touched on “Geronition” in my blog and found it really interesting how people have used it to illuminate other concepts and fields of study. The man in the poem is definitely feeling the weariness and helplessness Saul is radiating in the interrogation of Javadi. I tried not to go too far in-depth as I am less confident than you in my English chops, but I am glad you mentioned that “A Red Wheelbarrow” was also a poem and I totally buy how it fits the theme of that episode considering it punctuation-less structure.
What a cool idea for an analysis. I thought of T.S I watched “Gerontion” and I wonder how he would be view Saul’s attempt to “reclaim” power? I think the issue of power has always been a focus of political television shows, but I think shows such as House of Cards really illustrates the obsession with it. I also think the title of these episodes signify something deeper within the creators then to the average viewer.
That was really interesting, Marilyn. Now that you bring up Eliot, how can I not think of his famous “This is how the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” I guess for David Estes it ended with a bang, but Saul and Javadi seem headed for whimper. These episodes were certainly permeated with the sense of mortality, of nearing completion embodied in Saul and Javadi. But on the other hand, you have the more propulsive Lockhart seeking to upend the world Saul has protected–but then there’s one more old warrior, Dar Adal. He doesn’t seem to be prepared to go quietly into the night, one of the big surprises was that he dropped Lockhart and sided with Saul for the grand game of placing the mole in Iran.
Towards Brian’s point about Ethos and the writer’s motives, I would suggest this. Sometimes writers come from really impressive literature programs–Harvard, Yale, Berkeley–and suddenly they are writing/slumming in television. Maybe what keeps them going is that they can slip these allusions in that fellow travelers from their tribe can notice and applaud. When people vote on the Emmys, someone remembers that Gerontion got referenced in a spy drama. But it certainly seemed like more than a gratuitous reference. The ennui described in the poems fits so well with the weariness Saul is evoking right now.
As an English minor I love your comparison.I definitely agree that it was a smart move of the Homeland producers to show some depth and literary references. It shows that it is deeper than just action, killing, craziness and cunning. There is almost an art to how they are pouring out this story. Might not like it at time as I did not like studying William Carol’s but everything does have a purpose.
Not to sound like a broken record, but this was such an unique and interesting analysis! I am not familiar with these two poems but when I was doing some research for my own blog, I read how those two episodes were based off those poems. Have you noticed any other episodes in Homeland using this sort of literary comparison? I know some series base their episode names on a unifying theme. For example Grey’s Anatomy names their episodes off of song titles.
I’m really glad you chose this direction with your post! When looking at those particular titles and searching online- I found out that they were both references to poems– but I wasn’t familiar enough with either of them to feel like I could offer commentary of any depth. So I’m glad to see that you gave us your “English Scholar,” approach! 🙂 I like your discussion of “Geronition.” I think Elliot’s poem suits that particular episode really well. The red wheelbarrow seems a bit more ambiguous in terms of how it relates (apart from the use of the code over text.) I think you offer some solid ideas about what the poem might mean in relation to the show. After reading the poem several times, I still don’t feel like I really have anything to offer to a discussion about it. But it’s simplicity makes it really intriguing… so.. ? In any case.. Interesting post!